Photograph — New Scientist

Kenyan Ministry of Health will on Friday roll out the Human Papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine to curb the rising threat of cervical cancer in Mombasa county. 

The vaccination campaign targets approximately 800,000 10-year-old girls. The drug will be administered in two doses within a space of six months for free.

Public and private health facilities nationwide are expected to take part in the vaccination program. The starting point is said to be Mombasa county, with indications that it would spread nationwide.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a viral infection that’s passed between people through skin-to-skin contact. There are more than 40 varieties of HPV which are passed through sexual contact. They can affect the genitals, mouth, or throat and are associated with most cases of cervical cancer.

Moreover, the vaccine has been proven to be safe and efficient as pilot vaccination in Kenya was carried between 2013 and 2015 in Kitui. The pilot covered 22,500 children of ages 9 to 11, resulting in 95 percent evidence-based success.

The vaccine can prevent most cases of cervical cancer if given before a girl or woman is exposed to the virus. In addition, the vaccine can prevent vaginal and vulvar cancer in women as well as prevent genital warts and anal cancer in women and men.

The first vaccine against HPV became available in 2006. This was the culmination of decades of work, notably by scientists in Germany, who in 1983 discovered the link between HPV infection and cervical cancer.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends the screening and vaccination of all girls at least once every year to reduce the risk of cancer when they are older. But it was likely that at least a decade would pass between its introduction in high-income countries and in low-income countries.

Sub-Saharan Africa has lagged behind the rest of the world in introducing the HPV vaccine and routine screening, which means cervical cancer often isn’t identified and treated until it has reached an advanced stage.

Apart from the laxity of African governments towards general healthcare, one of the hindrances to the adoption of the vaccine in the region is the fear that the vaccine sexualizes young girls. More so, there have been anti-vax movements based on assertions that vaccination leads to autoimmune diseases and paralysis.

But Rwanda, being the first African country to use the vaccine, has shown that countries in the region can achieve excellent HPV vaccination coverage. This was done through proper mobilization and orientation programs, with the Ministry of Health reporting that 93 percent of girls now receive the vaccine.

Kenya has taken a cue from its eastern African neighbour with the aim to reduce cases of cervical cancer. According to recent statistics released by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, cervical cancer is the second most common after breast cancer.

Written by Faith Ikade.

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